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Abandoned in new homeland

Chia Vue Yang was 10 when he was snatched from his Laotian village, bundled into a CIA helicopter and flown to a jungle base. He spent the next decade cooking, toting ammunition and killing for the United States in the Vietnam War.

"They called me a "conscript.' I was just 10 years old; what do I know?" said Chia, a Hmong mountain tribesman. "I went to the front lines. I cook, I wash clothes, I learn how to fight, I use a machine gun. Every so often, the CIA guy, Jerry Daniels, comes by and inspects. He says, "Don't worry, I'll take care of you.' We believe Jerry."

Now, they feel betrayed.

Administrative judges and welfare officials are hearing the formal pleas of the Hmong, who were told last month their food stamps would be cut off in accordance with the new federal welfare-reform law. The law, signed by President Clinton last year, eliminated benefits for legal immigrants.

The Hmong say they are veterans of U.S. military forces and thus should be exempt from the cutoff. Filipinos who fought for the United States in World War II were given veterans' status, they say. So why not the Hmong?

Hmong leaders plan to plead their case Thursday in Washington at the U.S. Agriculture Department, which administers the federal food-stamp program.

Twenty-two years after U.S. forces left Vietnam, an eerie picture of the terror and death of that Southeast Asian war is emerging in an unlikely setting: the drab, institutional hearing rooms of California's county welfare offices.

The state says the language of the federal law leaves them no choice.

The law acknowledges it is "the sense of Congress" that the Hmong should not be penalized by the reforms. But the law itself leaves less room for compassion, the state officials say.

"The CIA said it would take care of us," said Blong Lo, a Hmong community leader in Chico. "But the CIA didn't teach you how to speak English, they taught you how to shoot a gun and kill. These people might not survive without help from the government."

CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield, asked about the Hmong's belief in CIA promises, declined to comment.

About 3,600 Hmong appeals were filed in Fresno, Butte, Alameda, Orange, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Yuba counties, where most of California's Hmong live. Asian legal advocates say several thousand more may be affected by the cutoff but have not challenged the law because they are leery of officialdom.

About two-thirds of the cases have been resolved, most of them against the Hmong; the remainder are pending.

In Minnesota, which also has a substantial Hmong population, legislation enables recipients to recoup some of the lost benefits. California has approved a similar, temporary program to continue food stamps for children and the elderly.

"That leaves the able-bodied, and they can find jobs or become citizens," said Corinne Chee, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Social Services.

The Hmong are one of several distinct tribes, given the blanket term Montagnard by the French colonialists, inhabiting the highlands of Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma and southern China.

That the Hmong fought, and died, for the Americans in Southeast Asia is widely known. The Hmong were recruited by Laotian or Vietnamese soldiers _ usually not voluntarily _ and placed in military units subject to the orders of CIA officers.

But the Hmong have little or no documentation and what they have is often incomplete paperwork issued by Laotian or Vietnamese authorities.

The Hmong, accustomed to an agricultural environment, have had difficulty adjusting.

Over the years, elder Hmong have had a hard time assimilating into American society. For many of them, welfare is a crucial lifeline.

"I can breathe and I'm still alive," 64-year-old Chong Lee Chue said, "but everything else is gone. The soul is gone."